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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

November 26, 2009

Two mini entries: 1. Grammar, plurality, agreement and 2. Formalized brainstorming

Sorry the lack of an update recently- it's presentation season.

First today, some thoughts about grammar, plurality, and agreement:

OK. You'd say "The Beatles were great" right? After all, the word "Beatles" is explictly plural. Now what about King Crimson or Genesis? King Crimson were great or was great? (By the way, Fripp and co. are still active). Certainly both answers are possible and acceptable although I'd lean towards "was" myself. It seems that our ultimate choices will be informed by how we percieve a rock band in our minds- as a set of individual members or as a collectiive singular unit.

But let's take the same equation and apply it to sports teams. The Detroit Red Wings are really strong. OK- like The Beatles, there is an explicit plural so there's no controversy here. But how about the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Minnesota Wild? NO ONE would say "The Wild is struggling" or "The Lightning has improved this year". Now, like King Crimson, sports teams are collections of individuals and could thus be viewed collectively or as a plurality right? Yet there is little doubt that we would use plural verb agreement ("are" "were") for the sports teams.

So, what's the basis for the difference? It is true that grammatical norms are often determined by perception (i.e. when to deploy the perfect tense) but how/why are the rperceptions of rock groups functionally any different from those of the hockey teams?

Any ideas out there?

Second on today's menu- a beef. The hassles of classroom 'brainstorming'.

You know the scene. You want to start your class with a 10-minute warm up designed to get students focused, talking, on topic before launching into the main teaching task. You want it to be quick, sharp and clear. Except that your students make it laborious and time-consuming. Here's how- or at least here's how it happens in my case (using my most recent example):

I have pre-written on the board in black the following-
Today- first (10 minute opener):
my last visit to a doctor/hospital/clinic
duration and/or frequency
treatments and/or medications

Next to each category is blank space in red.

I tell the students they have six minutes to think of their own 'last visit' and to write down their answers in the blank spaces. "Write only your answers for each of these on a piece of paper" I say. "Fill in the red blanks according to your own case". I also add that if they don't know the word or phrase they want to write in English, they should look it up in a dictionary (although they are quite familiar with all the categories listed above).

The goal is to then have them tell partners the above information in full sentence form. While I presume they are writing their lists and/or looking up the any new words I write my own answers on the board in the red spaces. I then say them in full sentences as a model. My plan is for this to segue into a section in the textbook about giving data in medical referrals.

Then I check on their progress (the full six minutes have almost passed). About one quarter of the students have jotted down their words appropriately. A few more are looking up words to add to their lists. OK. More than half have spent the time copying down only the categories I have written on the board including "Today- first (10 minute opener)". Several have just finished writing their names and student numbers on the paper. A few are still getting a piece of paper out of the depths of their sports bags.

Damn! The students are all over the place! Now, this used to make me angry and I would let students know so but I have since come to see that what was making me angry was the fact that my tight 'n sweet lesson plan wasn't going to form, that the students were ruining my pretty picture. Figuring that my anger was self-indulgent I have since decided to focus my complaint elsewhere.

I focus it here: When I give the students their partners (3 per team) only one is ready to do it properly, one is half-ready and will therefore stumble and stick Japanese in, and one is still wholly unprepared and will be thumbing his/her dictionary while the other students tell their 'stories'. This is rude! Listen to what your partners are saying, I tell them. And you can help do this by BEING PREPARED!

But what I really want to get off my chest, but don't, is the following. I know that no students read or know of this blog so I'll just vent here...

Apologies to those students who got it and complied right away.

There, I said it. Take a deep breath and relax, Mike.

I wonder if readers have similar experiences and how you may handle it. And trust me when I say that I outline everything clearly and comprehensively in advance.

« Q. When is a Native Speaker not good enough to be a Native Speaker? A. On the TOEIC test | Main | My attraction to alt.alt and students who don't say the 'right' thing »


Hi Mike

I'm not an Aussie, but I'm pretty sure that in Australia singular verb agreement is normal for sports teams. I'm sure I remember reading sentences such as 'Melbourne Storm is the strongest team this year'. Hopefully someone will correct me if I'm wrong...

This may sound a bit Skinnerian, but in my small (20-25) classes with enough space to gain easy access to all desks, I am able to monitor individuals closely in warm-ups like yours. I've added a special currency, or scrip, called EigoBux as an incentive and easy grading tool. Since the goal is speaking, while I am correcting or prompting individual students doing pair work, I am adding to their pile of money. I simply don't add anything if they are not speaking English. It takes about 3 class sessions for most to get the idea that quantity is as important as quality. A few first-years are still too shy, but they are pressured gradually as they see their classmates' piles grow larger. Grades are based on how much of the scrip they have. "Rich" opportunities like telling the class news, or giving me an interview, allow for some to catch up.

Grammar question: The archetype I use in this case is "The family is..." or "The family are...), the difference being in the focus on group or individual. I'd guess rock bands tend to focus more on the players, while the team is considered more a larger, unwieldy unit.

Here is a related question I got from a student yesterday:
"Has everyone in class brought their notebook(s)?" Have all the students in class brought their notebook(s)?" and "Does everyone have their driver's license(s)?". Official grammar rules for "everyone", and "their" aside, common usage allows, in many cases, for both. I told the student the focus mattered, group or individual.

Hi Mike. I thought your article in the Yomiuri today on teaching culture and the like was very good. This should be basic reading for all English teachers in Japan. Well done.

Thanks Mark.

I hope the Yomiuri article (not related to this blog entry- dear readers) goes one step towards a gradual change in EFL Culture teaching focus.

I will presenting on the same topic at the Kyushu ETJ Expo this Sunday (Dec. 06th) in Fukuoka.


Mr. Mike Guest,
I presume that
you are the author of
essay in a title of
12 goals for culture teaching, Tuesday, December 01, 2009, The Daily Yomiuri.
If I am right I am happy.
I attached my comment on here. By use of your email address attached to your essay, It does not reach unfortunately to you.
If you are not a person whom
I mean, I apologize you. Please throw this message away.
Yasumaa Arai 091201

To Mr. Mike Guest

Dear Mr. Guset,
my name is Mr.Yasumasa Arai, age 71.
a retired engineering scientist. Japanese ,male.
Almost forty years ago, I have been in Madison, Wisconsin,
as a graduate student with a good old days.
This morning, I have read your article under the name of
12 goals for culture teaching, Tuesday, December 01, 2009 The Daily Yomiuri.
It has stimulated myself on taking to think of your goals.
(How can I take your items in category?)
I have carefully read and make a category of three;
Whole 12 items on my understanding of differences of culture
between the domestic and foreign communities are.
6 of differences between domestic and foreign,; item1, 5,6,10,11,and 12,
4 of differences among foreign communities,; item2, 3,4,and 9
2 of comments on domestic culture,; item7 and 8/
I think these are separately to be studied in three groups.

(How do I feel cultural problems out of your parking lot trauma?)
I have quite realized your feeling and displeasure at the parking,
which comes out of oddness of an attendant guiding you.
I imagine it hurts your dignity as a citizen in Miyazaki.
Even though of this, my first impression, is that it is not coming from his hostility to
foreignness outlook, but from linguistic scare.
Imagine a historical background of this country.
I am putting my comments to your experience at the hotel parking as below;
1. After the WII, an average people here, has still familliarly takes a foreigner as an American.
2. The American is often outlooked as Western figure (in your term of ‘foreignness’).
3. He or she mostly speaks solely English.
4. An average people here is usually quite a poor speaker of English,
since they have not adequate and enough educations of aural English,
neither in compulsory school, nor in higher education grade.
5. So far, they are afraid to communicate to a person of ‘foreignness’ by use of English.
6. and they are often upset and occasionally behaive themselves in a strange manner
whenever it is necessary.

On your goals of 12,
1. I think these items are hypotheses which should be carefully investigated from concrete case studies.
2. I recommend that you had better to have research on these items at your lab of the University.
3. Your endeavor on this project will reach to possibility of great contribution on finding
how to make good mutation between different cultures.
4. At an end of this, it incidentally reminds me of the classics literature in terms of
Rutherford Alcock; The Capital of Tycoon, my three years residence in Japan.
or equivalences. Plaese take and enjoy it.
5. Above of all, I hope that you also write your another article in Japanese language, where you will
be able to stand on different views of world.
Thank you.

Yasumasa Arai 09/12/1
194-0002 Minami-Tsukushino, Machida-city, Tokyo

Yes Mr. Arai, I am the same Mike Guest. Thank you for your comments on the article.
I can also be reached at (that is, I believe, the email address associated with the article).

I'd like to add a comment on what you posted. I can't describe the garage incident in Miyazaki as a trauma or as an affront to my dignity. It was slightly frustrating and mildly amusing but mostly, for me, indicative or a more widespread problem. As you say this problem does not extend from personal hostility or racism but rather entrenched thinking that ends up leading to mild cases of discrimination (some non-Japanese react much more strogly to such incidents I might add).

I hope that little articles like mine have at least some minor effect on breaking the post world war 2 understanding/idea of foreignness.

Mike Guest

Hi Mike, I met you today after your presentation at the Kyushu ELT Expo. I was the one wearing the orange vest, we chatted a bit after the presentation. The presentation was great, by the way.

Just a quick comment on the sports team singular/plural dilemma. I am an avid sports fan, I read my fair share of articles on the internet and listen to sports-related podcasts. I've noticed that the "experts" who write about and discuss sports can't seem to agree on whether the Minnesota Wild is/are having a great season or not. It'd be nice if everyone agreed to just end all sports team names with an "s" and we could avoid the whole debacle altogether. As soon as I finish typing this comment I will write to the commissioners of all the major sports.

Now, regarding your beef on the brainstorming issue. I experience the same sort of thing all the time, I find that I have to go around the class and prod each student indvidually to get their butts in gear. Like you said, some students get it and others don't. Obviously the students who are prepared, pay attention, understand the task and get on with it are more eager to learn than their unprepared peers. I think the best way to get the unprepared folks on board is some kind of reward or penalty, perhaps similar to the Eigo Bux system another poster metnioned. Unfortunately we can't always have a class full of prepared, motivated students, but at least we have this space here to vent our frustrations.

I'll keep in touch with the blog and try to comment as often as possible. Keep the topics coming Mike.

Thanks for coming today Mark and taking the time to chat briefly after.

I was unhappy with myself today, I had only covered about 1/3 of the presentation when I realized I was 2/3 of the way through my time slot and so rushed the last bit. Usually I'm pretty good with the timing but today I was oblivious to it.

Keep in touch on this blog!

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